“Deteriorating matter (whether in the form of faeces or discarded consumer goods) embodies a time that exists beyond our rational time: in this shadow world, time is always running matter down, breaking things into pieces, or removing the sheen of a glossy surface and, therefore, the principal methods of dealing with material waste throughout most of human history – dumping, burning, recycling, reducing the use of virgin materials – are simply ways of ensuring that this fact does not intrude too far into everyday experience”.
John Scanlan. On Garbage. London, Reaktion Books, 2005, p. 34
The nature of waste
Waste does not exist outside human work. While other animals and plants can leave vestigial parts or excrements, society’s discards are often made to last. Human waste, therefore, has a nature and a history, and even if most of the times society strives to make it less visible or to erase it from the human everyday experiences by carrying (sometimes in the middle of the night) to the outskirts of towns, waste creates new geographies that produce and are produced by urban development.
One of the most prolific producers of waste in our cities is the building sector. Civil construction consumes nowadays at least one third of the world’s natural resources, and construction and demolition waste (CDW) such as rubble, concrete and masonry, can represent as much as 40% of the total waste stream in some cities (1).
In this context, a small group of architects, designers and urban planners are beginning to rethink the nature of their profession and starting to develop new methods of reusing different kinds of discarded materials. This research aims to reveal their historical background and to study those new approaches and experiences on the reuse of waste materials in architecture.
Matter out of place
Nothing is inherently waste, and the line between desirable and not, usable and worn out, pure and impure, is a cultural and controversial matter. The word “waste” originally referred to an area that was unsuitable to sustain human living, as a synonym of “wilderness” or “desert”. According to architect and MIT researcher Rania Ghosn,
“Trash only becomes a category when something is actively thrown away, burned, abandoned, deemed unsanitary, of fed to the dogs. [...] However, the individual who throws away is not the only arbiter of what constitutes waste. [...] Rather, the afterlife of discarded objects equally designates something as trash. Once an object enters the ecosystem of waste management, it no longer can be used, and is definitively trash. Ultimately, it is garbage collection that assesses which things have value and which things are, for human purposes, worthless” (2).
Waste historian Susan Strasser highlights three writers who also offer peculiarly interesting insights on the meaning of waste. The first writer is Mary Douglas, who describes waste as a cultural construct and matter out of place. The second is Michael Thompson, who demonstrates that waste is a dynamic social construction, since objects can easily move into and out of the category. The third writer is Kevin Lynch, who suggests that refuse is part of a social circle of creation and decay (3).
The habit of reusing waste has been a common practice through times, a resource used mainly for economic reasons, by reducing the need for new materials, labour and transportation. In the context of architecture, records show that materials are reused at least since the ancient Egypt the reutilization of stones from buildings destroyed by natural events, wars or lack of maintenance was usual. “A part of Cairo was built with the stones of the old pyramids and temples from Pharaohs. This proceeding reduced the costs of constructions, once cutting new stones and transport them to the site increased the costs of the work” (4).
The Roman architect Vitruvius (80–70 BC – after 15 BC) mentions that the strongest walls were those made using roof tiles from old roofs, since only the best materials would have survived the weather. He also wrote that murals painted in brick walls could be cut and transported to be incorporated in other buildings (5).
In the Middle Age, many cathedrals were built in the site of old churches and, always when possible, the former foundations were used. The practice of reusing materials from former buildings and walls led to the development of “deconstruction sites” (6). Thus many buildings were erected with bricks and pieces of marble from buildings from previous ages – including old constructions from the Roman Empire.
In rural communities, the practice of deconstruction and reuse was largely preserved until recent periods. In the urban context, however, the Industrial Revolution radically changed the perception of value and the relation with materials.
“Before the industrial revolution, used building materials were valued because they conserved the great deal of human effort required to produce and install virgin materials. Building materials were routinely cycled from one structure to another. With the mechanization of building material production, installation, and demolition, the industry standard changed from systematic “de-construction” to mechanized demolition” (7).
After the Industrial Revolution, the increase of waste production by industrial activities, the new technologies that improved the efficiency in the exploitation of natural resources and the lack of a proper waste management system made the problem of waste one of the most serious issues in modern cities (8).
By the turn of the 20thcentury, a profound cultural change in discard habits demanded sanitation improvements. By the means of technological advances, organizational changes and new attitudes, an emerging new way of life resulted in the production of one-time use products, the transfer of responsibility to discards to municipal trash collection, and the association of traditional reuse and recycling with poverty and backwardness.
“Trash was regarded as a dystopic symptom of consumer society. Rather than treating the cause however, the response was to further remove trash from sight, containing it in large-scale mega-landfills invisible from all but an aerial view. Once enclosed, odourless, and away, trash is matter-out-of-site. Yet in its larger ecosystem, trash is still matter-out-of-place: a vile residue whose exile confirms the health and fecundity of the society from which it was removed, and, paradoxically, by which it was produced” (9).
In the sphere of architecture and engineering, the reuse of materials such as scrap steel or iron in steel production was a taboo for the construction market. Along most part of the twentieth-century, this fact was not largely publicized because steel consumers didn’t like the fact that they were buying second-hand materials, although the properties and the quality of steel was not affected in any form (10). The easiness and economic vantages of throwing things away also made industry apathetic of the consequences of discarding other materials – and society embraced this posture, although its impact would forge in the following years a notion of a sustainable imbalance.
The preindustrial artisans and builders used to work for their own communities, customizing according to the users and fixing when something went wrong; repair was an extension of production. With industrialization, mass production became a task for machines tenders with little knowledge – but repair continued to demand comprehension of the object and the designer’s intentions. Fixing became a more specialized activity than producing, and consequently throwing away and buying new products became cheaper than repairing.
In terms of urban developing, the preference for the novelty over the fixture of the previous would provide the ideal conditions for radical purposes such as Le Corbusier’s, erasing the existing inner-city buildings and replacing them with high-rise structures instead of dealing with the previous context. The notion of reuse within the Modernist movement was buried under a new lexicon, with words like “clean”, “pure” or “healthy” (11) dominating a new sanitary discourse in the architectural sphere that would free society from the consequences of filthy and unhygienic conditions.
The spread of a white and clean architecture built with white stucco in combination with reinforced concrete – a profoundly challenging material in terms of reusing and recycling – diminished considerably the possibility of materials reuse in civil construction. In fact, for the benefit of economic prosperity, the entire system became blinded to the environmental consequences of heavy industrial activities such as civil construction. As a result, modernist cities were disconnected from the problem of waste, and society became blind to the reality of waste in the sense that it almost perfected the means to forget the chain of tasks undertaken by others.
“It is likely that we rarely see the full effects of garbage because our personal involvement in the mucky details of its disposal is replaced by the objective and impersonal direction of municipal government in the form of the cleansing department. In the garbage war, the refuse workers are cast as the unlikely storm troopers for progress, saviours of the city and of modern society. Not only does this fact go unrecognized but, just as significantly, their very existence ensures that the spectre of garbage is kept at bay” (12).
Garbage became an out-of-sight-out-of-mind entity not only for the general public, but often gained the same status for architects, urban planners, and urban theorists as well. The notion of a “clean” urbanism created new geographies that relied on cities’ capacity to strip themselves from the environmental costs relegating responsibility to political and geographic entities beyond city jurisdictions. In this context, the rise of environmentalist groups and entities in the 1960s began to question the environmental and economic externalities that were accompanying urban processes, and Modernist architecture and urban planning has ended up being indirectly associated with a moment in which “human arrogance has gone too far and as atonement, the forces of nature have seen fit to impose a tax by dropping rocks onto human constructions” (13).
In the 1970s and 1980s, public opinion started to change about the impact of waste over the environment, and people started to demand the closing of landfills and to pressure authorities to introduce measures to prevent environmental contamination. During the 1980s and the 1990s, recycling programmes with different approaches started to emerge in many industrialized countries. Private recycling companies started to be attracted by the potential of collecting solid waste materials to recycle them within innovative production processes. Public awareness was also improved, and under the ecological mantra the debate on waste has gradually shifted from its reduction to a matter of (excess of) consumption (14).
“The challenge for our society is more and more how to minimize our production of inorganic waste, and how to convert those inorganic substances in our garbage that are perhaps unavoidable into a resource. This is the essence when we talk about a minimum – or even zero – waste society, following the four R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Recover” (15).
Considering that construction is one of the main consumers of natural resources and produces almost half of the total waste stream in some cities, waste management has been increasingly considered a central theme in the architectural discipline – and from material upcycling to urban mining, many creative approaches have been developed in the last years to minimize the impacts of construction discards in the ecosystem.
Contemporary approaches to waste
With regard to waste management strategies, architectural approaches have two different challenges: to minimize the production of waste and to reconvert waste into supply (16). The quest for depriving the actual economic system from the production of waste is the idea behind many theories on waste management that, at least for a moment in the last decades, guided authorities and companies in the search for eliminating all threats to the health of animals and plants, as well as to the equilibrium of Earth’s ecosystem.
The first, most general and widely used approaches on waste management are based on the concept of the 3 Rs – a strategy to classify waste management processes according to their final intention: reduce, reuse or recycle. Some theorists also describe a 7 Rs Golden Rule, or Cradle-to-Cradle model, adding the processes of recovery, rethink, renovate and regulate (Haggar, 2007) in a way of thinking the design of products and systems as waste-free metabolisms, such as those seen in natural cycles. In a metabolic body, the goal of a system free of diseases is replaced by the notion of the body as an open and self-regulating system in which disease is a motivation for our organism to change and develop.
The same motto suited the sustainable architecture discourse: the capacity to overcome organic crises in order to establish a new order lead to new architectural design philosophies that are assimilating waste as an adaptive resource instead of excluding it from the process. In this context, as Mary Douglas writes, waste is only matter out of place.
Aiming to convert discarded materials into a resource, a small group of contemporary architects is dealing with discards as the main supply for their creations. The idea behind many of those groups is urban mining – “the process of reclaiming compounds and elements from wasted or at least undesired products or buildings that contain high levels of valuable materials.” (17) In a text called “Mine the City”, the architectural critics Ilka and Andreas Ruby describe a new posture in architectural practice in which raw materials are not to be found anymore in a natural realm, but more and more in the cultural domain of buildings.
“The material resources of construction are becoming increasingly exhausted at the place of their natural origins, while inversely accumulating within buildings. For example, today there is more copper to be found in buildings than in earth. As mines become increasingly empty, our buildings become mines in themselves” (18).
Those architectural approaches, however, are extremely varied. Mário Luís Proença Almeida de Melo Mota separates them in three different groups. The first approach considers the reuse of former construction parts such as doors, pavements and tiles; those are separated along the process of demolition and can be directly reintroduced in the market. The second approach is comprised by construction materials made from waste recycling, such as technical pavements made with rubber extracted from old tires, bricks made from residual ashes from incineration plants and other products that aim to diminish the energy resources needed in their manufacturing. There is also a third approach whose premise is to reuse waste without any new industrial interventions – an approach that aims to reuse what the consumer society commonly wastes: cardboards, plastic bottles, tires, containers and other by-products.
“By reusing and recycling [those materials], reformulations in construction methods appear, demonstrating the ability of rethinking materials and introducing new meanings and functions to the repurposed objects. Those are used in the most varied contexts, from emergency shelters and housing to commercial spaces and playgrounds, demonstrating that architectural drawing has the capacity of bringing new uses for the consumer society’s waste” (19).
This unusual kind of architecture experience is practiced by firms such as Superuse Studios and REFUNC, in the Netherlands, and the collective Basurama, present in Spain and Brazil. In common they have a philosophy that pretends to remove the temporal limits placed by society over the nature of objects by rethinking discarded materials. Their approach is modest, though. They incorporate what the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss described as the figure of the bricoleur – an odd-job man who works with his own hands using scraps or oddments. Unlike the engineer, the bricoleur does not make products using raw materials and tools conceived specifically for the project. His universe of instruments is limited, compelling him to deal with “whatever is at hand”. He collects tools and materials because they might come in handy.
As bricoleurs, the architects from Refunc, Superuse Studios and Basurama deal with waste matter and the imbalances of modern living not by means of technology, but by handicrafts. Their common principle is to “construct the city from the bottom” – physically, using their own hands and tools to experiment in a field that sees architecture in a broader sense, combining design, ecology and cultural industry.
The understanding of waste as a specific category – neither belonging to the family of natural resources nor to the one of finished products – only arise because in contemporary society garbage is placed beyond subjective control, as something to be taken care of as part of the social organization of waste.
The common goal of the following firms is to open people’s eyes to the enduring reality of garbage, rethinking objects that constitute garbage in a separate experiential sphere and rescuing them into the system, again.
These offices’ approach is not as rare as it seems. Many firms around the world incorporate discarded materials in their projects; however, by restricting their architectural practice to resignifying waste materials, those offices take the forefront of a new architecture exclusively based on sustainable and conscious development, proving the feasibility of this approach not only in terms of creative design but also demonstrating that waste, when in the right place, can be redeemed by society.
Refunc is an architect’s collective based in The Hague, The Netherlands, and Berlin, Germany. The office creates experimental products, structures and “mobile micro architecture” based on the reuse of waste materials. It also promotes workshops and research on waste and creative recycling.
“Refunc provides a better life for discarded materials, components, objects or spaces. Refunc connects local material and knowledge flows towards a better world. Operating on the boundaries of architecture, art and design we reshape old materials to new products. Design origins are found in the object itself, listening to its own composition, history or local and social context. We can start from a design, but prefer problems to play with, like extreme deadlines and non-existing budgets…3D troubleshooting and creative improvisation with locally available waste materials lead the way to our often unpredictable results. We can not oversee all potential of the material, although we are getting quite experienced by now… Wherever you can find garbage, we do research and workshops on creative re-use, as recycling is not the answer to the questions of life, the universe and everything. We are Refunc” (20).
Inversely to the traditional approach, in their architectural method materials define the possibilities, and not the inverse. Architecture, in this context, emerges through an “improvised” study of composition, material history and local context, leading design operations to “unpredictable results” (21).
Designed by the architects Denis Oudendijk and Jan Körbes, this experimental housing project was built in 2013 in The Hague, Netherlands, and transported to the Center for Art and Urbanistics in Berlin, Germany. It is a 13m² mobile house built by reusing an old grain silo and other discarded materials. The concept was to build a minimal solution of low-cost, energy-saving, and small footprint housing.
The Vortex is a 7 meters-high pavilion built in The Hague in 2012 in collaboration with Raumlabor Berlin for the TodaysArt Festival. Representing a natural force that gathers everything on its way, the Vortex pavilion was constructed with wooden leftovers and served as a meeting point in the heart of the festival area, at Spuiplein.
Superuse Studios, formerly known as 2012Architecten, was founded in 1997 by the architects Césare Peeren and Jan Jongert – a time when sustainable design was not as widely known as it is now. The offices are currently run by five engineers specialized in interventions, design, architecture, urbanism and research. The firm works not only with architecture design but also with products and strategies focused on waste transformations.
According to their philosophy, “nature is a cyclical and dynamic system”, formed by processes in which diversity is always maintained; in the other hand, “society is a linear and rigid system, typified by homogeneity”. This results in a huge amount of waste and waste of resources. Their mission is to make new interconnections within the system and include the systems of nature in the process in order to make more effective uses of resources, energy and manpower.
“At Superuse Studios we believe we can make a difference… We think ingenious, beautiful and functional architectural and social design solutions can be created using existing resources, materials and systems. Everything is already there, we just have to see and utilize it. In this way we can transform to a sustainable society and limit the impact of architecture and design. To make optimal use of locally sourced 'waste' in new design solutions is what we call SUPERUSE. Functionality, sustainability and aesthetics are our guiding principles” (22).
In order to harvest locally their materials, Superuse Studios developed a platform named Oogstkaart (literally “Harvestmap”), an online collaborative platform that functions as a market for designers architects and other "professional upcyclers", currently offering waste supply options in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and France. They are also the co-creators (together with the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague) of INSIDEflows,org – an online community that allows the promotion of "items that celebrate inventive sustainable interiors", inspiring and speeding up "the process towards a more sustainable use of our resources".
Villa Welpeloo was designed for an art collector couple by using surplus materials in the vicinity of the site. Located in Enschede, the house comprises two bedrooms, a guesthouse, a studio/kitchen and a big hall. According to the architects, "the found materials resulted in new shapes and new ways of construction". The façade is built with the inner parts of cable reels, and the load bearing construction is made from steel beams from a paternoster (textile factory machine).
Constructed with parts of washing machines, billboards, airplane parts, circuit boards and found steel tubes, the Espressobar *K served the Faculty of Architecture at Delft University of Technology. Although the Espressobar survived the big fire that destroyed the faculty, it was demolished along with the building.
Created in 2001, the Spanish collective Basurama takes waste philosophy a little further by using creative waste reuse to criticize the system and the consumer society.
“Basurama is a collective devoted to [...] study phenomena inherent to mass production of real and virtual waste within consumer society, contributing with new visions that act as generators of thought and attitude. It detects debris within those processes of production and consume that not only raise questions about the way we use resources but also our way of thinking, working, and perceiving reality.
Basurama was created to find waste where it would not be so obvious to find it, as well as to study the trash in all formats. It has become a multidisciplinary space in which disparate but simultaneously activities are developed under common approach” (23).
Their goal is to share knowledge “in a time of maximum authorship, solitariness and individualism, in which the starchitect’s heroism is the example to be followed”.
Waste, in this context, is the transversal, democratic and unifying material – it is available to everyone, it is easy to obtain and it has high creative potential. It is not only tool and material for the creation, but also a mechanism of reflecting about ourselves. Waste provokes social questioning by promoting a quest for alternative possibilities.
Autoparque en Malabo
This intervention aimed to create a small public space in the sidewalk of a street in the central area of Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. The site was formerly used as an irregular parking area. Using plastic crates and wooden pallets, Basurama designed a playground with benches and vertical gardens – an adaptable structure to rest, socialize and play.
Space for studies and playground in CCE Malabo
Developed in 2014 for the Spanish Cultural Centre (CCE) in the city of Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, this project was built with the pieces of old steel frame pavilions from the Spanish Embassy, on the other side of the street of the centre. Its aim was to create a space for studies, a playground and a set of chairs and tables for the cultural centre.
It is probably impossible to eliminate waste from construction processes. In fact, the problem in not waste per se, but its economic and environmental costs. Waste can be a problem but also a resource. The challenge, therefore, is not to eliminate trash from human habits, but to make waste that we are prepared to take care for.
Architecture’s capacities to reconfigure spatial organization and to make visible again such an abstract concern – or at least a problem that is purposely kept unseen from human life – allows architects, urban designers and urban theorists to redefine the aesthetic and political assumptions of urban waste management. Architecture and urban design, in this context, is an important tool to reverse the relentless strategy to erase trash from the public view, bringing waste into the public realm both visually and as a subject of debate.
Future strategies for waste management and reuse in architecture and urban design should do more than seek for technological improvements and solutions. By revaluating the meaning of waste and the capacity of materials to be adapted by means of creative and low-tech strategies, the architectural practice can expand its capacity to overcome periods of economic crisis, or even to transform an urban problem into a commodity – and not only for the less privileged.
Further steps in the process of assimilating waste should also point to the aesthetical value of reuse. What kind of solution is more effective in terms of awareness? From a moral standpoint, should this kind of architecture based on material reuse look like it is made of waste, or should it be designed as integrated as possible to the old aesthetics? Can the waste aesthetics avoid kitsch? Or even more far, can waste define new urban typologies?
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REFUNC. Refunc in Words. Accessed May 5, 2016 through <http://refunc.nl/?cat=210>.
SUPERUSE STUDIOS. Superuse Studios. Accessed May 5, 2016 through <http://superuse-studios.com>.
“Basurama es un colectivo dedicado a [...] estudiar fenómenos inherentes a la producción masiva de basura real y virtual en la sociedad de consumo aportando nuevas visiones que actúen como generadores de pensamiento y actitud. Detecta resquicios dentro de estos procesos de generación y consumo que no sólo plantean interrogantes sobre nuestra forma de explotar los recursos, sino también sobre nuestra forma de pensar, de trabajar, de percibir la realidad. Basurama se ha propuesto encontrar los residuos allí donde no sería tan obvio hallarlos y estudiar la basura en todos sus formatos. Se ha convertido en un espacio pluridisciplinar en el que se desarrollan simultáneamente actividades dispares pero con un enfoque común”. Basurama. “Quénes Somos y Qué Hacemos”. Accessed May 5, 2016 through <http://basurama.org/basurama/>.